Rooming House Fears, Daycare Needs Spurs Sandy Hill Neighbours to Buy Historic House

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[20-June-2013] Click here to view original article.

Ottawa Citizen by Maria Cook – Like many Sandy Hill residents, Leanne Moussa is discouraged by the number of multi-unit buildings replacing single-family houses. When the historic Carriage House came on the market, she feared it would suffer the same fate.

Located at 43 Blackburn Ave., on the corner of Osgoode Street, the white-brick house and generous garden surrounded by a wrought-iron fence is a landmark. “You could put a lot of rooms there as a rooming house,” says Moussa, a 38-year-old mother of three young children.

The trend is easy to see. Just next door, at 45 Blackburn, a stone cottage was recently replaced with a 20-bedroom structure of minimal design and maximum volume.

The two-storey Carriage House came on the market in February 2012 at a price of $1.399 million. Coincidently, Moussa was tasked with finding a new home for the Bettye Hyde Co-operative Nursery School, attended by her children. The non-profit nursery needed to move from All Saints’ Church, a block away, where it has operated for decades.

“Initially, we joked about it,” recalls Moussa. “We said it would be a lovely space for Bettye Hyde. We looked at the listing price and had a good laugh.”

What began as wishful thinking is becoming reality. In a bold move, a group of 20 neighbours have banded together to buy the house and adapt it for daycare as well as a child and family clinic. They paid $985,000.

“People who invested in this project want to stay here,” says Moussa. “We want to shape our neighbourhood in a way that will continue to make it attractive for families.

“People feel really empowered,” she said. “Our intention is to show what can be done when people come together to reshape a space. Certainly, it reflects unhappiness by residents at some not-very-well-planned development happening in our neighbourhood.”

Moussa recently completed a master’s degree in political science at Carleton University where she researched civic associations. “I am interested in the way that people can come together to effect change,” she says. She is on leave from her job in stakeholder engagement at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

The grassroots initiative enjoys the support of Action Sandy Hill, the community association.

“It’s wonderful,” says association president Christopher Collmorgen. “At the same time, it’s very sad that that’s what has to happen in order to preserve your community. There seems to be little confidence in the city’s planning department.”

At least 10 single-family houses have been converted to rooming houses in the past two years, he says. The association’s website lists 28 existing rooming houses. Some are built as four-unit dwellings, with four or five bedrooms per unit. The target market is students from nearby University of Ottawa.

While some rooming houses are fine, others are not, says Collmorgen. Too many people in too little space brings unacceptable levels of noise, traffic and garbage.

Last April, the city’s planning committee approved a temporary bylaw banning new conversions of single-family houses into student bunkhouses in the districts around Carleton and the U of O.

It’s meant to give the planning department about six months to come up with new standards for the conversions, which are increasingly common as universities suffer a shortage of residence space.

The Carriage House was built around 1912 by Lt.-Col. James W. Woods to house his carriages and horses. A successful entrepreneur, Woods was the first to create a down-filled sleeping bag. In 1940, architect Gordon Hughes transformed the stables into a house for himself. In 1975, John and Betty Ellis, collectors of Canadiana, bought it. The six-bedroom house was put up for sale after the death of widow Betty Ellis.

However, its need for major renovation deterred homebuyers. The longer it remained unsold, the more neighbours grew worried. “It seemed not likely to sell as a home,” says Moussa. As the daughter of a developer in Alberta, she saw the “natural business model” would be to convert the house into a high-occupancy residence and develop the sideyard.

As the price dropped, Moussa began to believe that the community could take on the role of developer. “I think this is do-able,” she told Cindy Mitchell, director of Bettye Hyde.

Last October, Moussa set up a company called SHO Developments, invested her own money to incorporate and established a shareholders agreement. She put in a conditional offer on the house and approached friends, neighbours and Bettye Hyde parents to buy shares.

“People were intrigued by the idea,” she said. Moussa sold 17 shares for $35,000 each to 20 investors, (some are jointly owned.) The company obtained a bank loan for the rest. They took possession of the house last November, throwing it open for a party attended by 200 local residents.

Neighbours who didn’t invest have offered expertise and help. “I’m amazed this has come together the way it has,” says Moussa.

The corporate objectives are “to balance community benefit with a reasonable rate of return.” The goal is for shareholders to earn five per cent after operating costs.

Francine Schutzman, who has lived kitty-corner to the house since 1980, cashed an RRSP to buy a share. “I don’t know if I will ever see a return on this investment,” she says. “That is not why I made it. It is rather a matter of pride in my neighbourhood and of doing whatever I can to keep it a vital and attractive one. I have always loved the building, and I wanted to help preserve it.”

Another shareholder, Claire MacDonald says, “It’s the community actually having a say in something, rather than waiting passively for someone else to do it. We might have lost the nursery school entirely.”

On June 12, Ottawa city council approved a rezoning application to allow daycare, community resource centre and office space use. In addition, it agreed to remove rooming house use from the zoning so the house could revert to a single-family home in the future.

“I think this is a really good project,” says immediate neighbour Katie Gilmour. “It will promote families living in Sandy Hill.

“I very much appreciate how Leanne and her team have gone about doing this project in terms of communicating with us regularly,” she said. “They’re going about it in a really neighbourhood-friendly way.”

One of the concerns has been parking. Among other measures, the company is working with the city to implement a 15-minute drop zone. They expect many people will walk.

The spacious ground floor will become a daycare centre for 39 preschool children and toddlers. The garden will be used as an outdoor play area. “It’s the perfect childcare facility,” says Moussa. “It’s difficult to find this much green space in the city.”

The second level will house the Child Adolescent and Family Centre of Ottawa, a group practice of pediatricians, child psychologists, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and social workers. The bedrooms under the eaves are suited to consultation rooms, says clinic director Caroline Sullivan. “It’s got a really homey feel.”

The company is investing $400,000 to renovate. They hope to start construction shortly and expect tenants to move in late fall. The project will maintain heritage features, including the carriage house doors flanked by old coach house lamps.

Moussa says their vision is to use the equity in the Carriage house to finance other projects in Sandy Hill.

“It was meant to be,” says Mitchell, the nursery school’s director. It turns out that school founder Bettye Hyde and former owner Betty Ellis were friends.

“If it had been turned into a rooming house, it would cover the whole lawn,” says Mark Ellis, Betty’s son. “Instead of that, there will be a bunch of happy little kids running around.”